While there is still no cure for Parkinson’s Disease, there is a lot of research that indicates medical marijuana may be a great alternative or supplement to current treatment of the illness. As researchers continue to study Parkinson’s, more resources are being devoted to understanding the effect cannabis consumption has on patients suffering from the disease.
Because there is no cure for Parkinson’s, treatment focuses on improving the patient’s quality of life and treating the symptoms of the disease, which include impaired motor functions, slurred speech, cognitive problems, tremors, slowed movements and a host of other issues. Medications are generally used to increase dopamine levels in the brain and to help with mobility issues, and treatments generally involve a complicated regimen of medicines that are taken on a regular schedule throughout the day.
The endocannabinoid system and the brain
The human brain contains an endocannabinoid system that produces cannabinoids, the active ingredient found in marijuana. The most well known cannabinoid found in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC. The endocannabinoid system has receptors that are capable of binding with cannabinoids in marijuana, which in turn promotes dopamine levels. Additionally, cannabinoids can at times act as dopamine agonists by imitating and bonding to the same receptors as natural dopamine, resulting in the same effects.
When it was discovered in the 1960’s that a lack of dopamine in the brain was responsible for Parkinson’s debilitating symptoms, researchers created a drug called levodopa. While levodopa is effective at increasing dopamine levels, it has a number of significant side effects, including nausea, uncontrolled movements and hallucinations.
Research of Medical Marijuana for Parkinson’s Disease
A 2001 study researched whether cannabinoids could play a role in reducing the uncontrolled movements associated with levodopa, and the study indicated that the cannabinoid receptor agonist nabilone could possibly be used to manage that particular side effect.
It should be noted that the area of the brain that controls movement, known as the basal ganglia, contains a high number of cannabinoid receptors, while patients suffering from Parkinson’s are generally shown to have less of these receptors than people without the disease.
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A 2014 study looked at 22 patients who underwent a regimen of tests conducted thirty minutes before and after smoking medical marijuana. The results showed that most of the patients had markedly improved scores on the tests after smoking marijuana, indicating that it has medicinal benefits for people afflicted with Parkinson’s. An earlier study from 2004 saw 46% of its subjects report that they experienced mild to significant improvements in dealing with the symptoms of Parkinson’s, while 30% reported that marijuana use helped with symptoms related to mobility.
Medical Marijuana Side Effects
While medical marijuana has plenty of benefits for patients suffering from Parkinson’s, it isn’t the perfect treatment for everyone. While many people report that marijuana has a calming and anxiety reducing effect, for others it can actually increase anxiety. Additionally, marijuana impairs cognitive functions, which may be problematic for patients who are already struggling with the cognitive symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
While the risk of overdose from medical marijuana is incredibly low, that’s not to say it is a risk free treatment for people suffering from Parkinson’s. For many patients, medical marijuana works best to supplement their current treatments. As always, it is important for patients to discuss treatment options with their doctors as medical marijuana may cause interactions with other drugs.
Of the twenty eight states that have endorsed medical marijuana, only ten currently recognize Parkinson’s as a qualifying condition for cannabis use as prescribed by a doctor. These include Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
Medical Marijuana improves quality of life
As research continues on marijuana’s effectiveness for Parkinson’s sufferers, it increasingly appears to be a strong addition to the more conventional treatments available for the disease. Studies indicate that medical marijuana improves the quality of life for the majority of patients who use it as part of their treatment, while the risks associated with cannabis use are much lower than the more common medications that are prescribed to treat Parkinson’s.